Features — 12 March 2016 — by Adele Ramos
Opposition Leader says major  exports “in trouble”

ORANGE WALK, Wed. Mar. 9, 2016–The national budget debate is slated for Tuesday, March 22 and Wednesday, March 23—which gives the Opposition People’s United Party two weeks to prepare its statement on the budget proposal tabled by Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Dean Barrow in the National Assembly on Tuesday.

Speaking with Amandala today, Opposition Leader Johnny Briceño said that he would be meeting tomorrow, Thursday, with agro-producers, and on Friday with the Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Next week, he plans to meet separately with representatives of the trade unions and the churches. Briceño said that they also intend to hold their next public consultation in Cayo, at which they intend to discuss the proposed budget.

Briceño said that Belize’s major exports are in trouble: papaya is gone; sugar is in serious trouble; and citrus is in trouble, with production down from 7 million boxes a year to under 5 million, and the factory struggling to pay the farmers, he told us.

At Tuesday’s House meeting, the application by the Citrus Products of Belize Limited (CPBL) for a $10 million loan from Heritage Bank was raised. Barrow said that the bank had not yet received Central Bank approval but had gotten the green light to advance $3.5 million to the company. The Central Bank was due to meet this week to consider further submissions on the loan application.

While Barrow indicated that sugar production would offset a downturn in production from the other agricultural producers, with Santander Sugar commencing milling this year, Briceño told us that cane farmers in the north will continue to face challenges.

“They don’t have enough money to pay for transportation, and to cut and load their cane,” he said, adding that the government is unaware, uncaring or unable to take proper action.

In his budget presentation, Barrow said that production from virtually all export crops is expected to contract. He said that the growth of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) will moderate to between 1.5 to 2.0 percent in 2016. Growth in 2014 was reported at 4.1%, and for 2015 it is estimated at 1.4%.

“Sugarcane deliveries are projected to rise by 23% percent due to Santander’s output. However, production of all other major export crops is likely to decrease,” Barrow said.

He added that banana output will be negatively impacted by the halt in the operations of the Meridian Group, and the major producer of papayas, Fruta Bomba, has signaled that production will be halted in August.

Shrimp production will remain low for at least the first half of the year and manufacturing is expected to decline, he said, due to an anticipated drop in agro-processing and the continued shrinkage in crude oil extraction.

Barrow said, though, that the services sector will once again drive the economy, as tourism activities expand with a projected increase in stay-over arrivals.

The December 2015 report of the Statistical Institute of Belize (SIB) said that domestic exports for the year totaled $535.3 million, down 12.9% or $79.1 million from the $614.4 million recorded for 2014. It added that sugar was the year’s strongest performer among the major exports, resulting in a 20% increase or $24 million more in earnings over 2014. Orange concentrate sales were up towards the end of 2015, but marine and crude petroleum exports both declined notably.

Plunging world prices resulted in a 64% drop in the country’s crude petroleum earnings from $102 million in 2014 to $36 million for the year 2015, the SIB said.

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